While most of his peers were attending football games and socializing on the weekends, Ryan Joy spent his teenage years working as many hours as he could at his dad’s Checkers franchise in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Today, Joy continues to put in hours for the Checkers/Rally’s brands, but it’s not working for his dad Craig Joy’s franchise, which was the first franchise in the Checkers/Rally’s system. It’s as the senior director of R&D and culinary for the company, a position in which he’s helped the company develop a number of pivotal new menu items.

“My dad would wake me up on the weekends to go into the store with him. I was in the restaurant so long, it became what I know best,” Ryan Joy says of the years working for his father. After receiving a degree in Food Science and Hospitality Management from the University of Alabama, he returned home with the plan to work alongside his dad. “I figured I could take my marketing learning back and rejoin my dad. It could be a dynamic duo of operations and marketing.”

Instead, Craig Joy put his son in touch with the marketing department at Checkers/Rally’s corporate office in Tampa, Florida, since “that is what he was really interested in,” he says. His son began by answering phones for the vice president of marketing, then worked in several positions in Checkers/Rally’s marketing department before realizing his passion was in product development.

At the time, Checkers/Rally’s didn’t have a research and development department. “R&D was based out of our purchasing department,” Ryan Joy says. “We would ask purchasing what our LTO should be, and sometimes vendors would say, ‘By the way, we sell this special sauce.’ We were discounting our core menu items for LTOs with virtually no new flavors.”

“He takes it to the next level and finds a way to make products both affordable for our consumers and operationally possible for our restaurants.”

“We were very stagnant in product development,” Craig Joy adds. “The products we were doing did not drive the business; instead, they were duplicated [from] a lot of other quick-serve restaurants.”

In 2001, Ryan Joy went to then-CEO Keith Sirois and asked to develop an R&D department. While his request was granted, he says, he didn’t have any funds, and “was doing product development out of the back of a restaurant and the back of a car.” But even without an official R&D budget or facility, Joy pulled off a few success stories for the brand. For instance, about 10 years ago, Checkers/Rally’s launched its Fully Loaded Fries line that includes Cheese Chili Cheese and Baconzilla fries. The line is now one of the chain’s signature offerings.

The R&D director also launched the Cold Creations line of premium shakes, sundaes such as the Oreo Layered Sundae, and stuffed waffle cones. “Cold Creations was rolled out to all 800 restaurants after a test in Tampa, where overall sales were up 12 percent on the first day because of Cold Creations,” Joy says.

Checkers/Rally’s CEO Rick Silva credits the Cold Creations products as being a big part of the company’s success. But he adds that Joy’s contributions extend far beyond the dessert line.

“Philly Cheesesteak subs; $2 boxes, which matches our fries with a protein; Monsterella Stix; and our new Grilled Cheese Strips also can be traced back to Ryan’s contributions,” Silva says. Because of Joy’s experience working in both R&D and in restaurants, “he also takes it to the next level and finds a way to make [products] both affordable for our consumers and operationally possible for our restaurants,” Silva says.

The company’s innovative product lines in recent years have contributed to the company’s rapid growth, the CEO says. Checkers/Rally’s operates 800 stores in 30 states, and has seen 16 consecutive quarters of sales growth. “Over the last five years, we have dramatically grown our annual average restaurant sales by more than $100,000 per restaurant,” Silva says. “In addition, the new restaurants are delivering $1.5 million in their first year, as compared to the system average annual sales volume of around $1 million.”

New product development has become faster in the past 18 months, thanks to Joy finally getting what he wanted: a dedicated research and development facility. Springfield, Missouri–based Food IQ funded construction of the 3,500-square-feet facility, which features a focus group room with mirrored glass, along with a test kitchen.

“It has made us about 40 percent more efficient. I can do development work whenever I need to,” says Joy, who has the help of two corporate chefs and Checkers/Rally’s brand management team. Joy “forces” brand managers and the culinary team to work together, because the brand team knows which products and flavors Checker’s/Rally’s consumers will buy, he says.

Consumer research is essential to Checkers/Rally’s new product development and to the company’s success, Silva says. “We do focus groups every other week. We are constantly talking to customers—particularly those who eat fast food five to 25 times per month—and understanding how they live their lives … and what is important to them,” he says.

For example, Checkers/Rally’s executives have learned how important “social snacking” is to its frequent customers, who are generally Millennials. “Snacking is a big part of how they are eating. They don’t keep food in their fridge, so they do a food run while they have friends over,” Silva says. “As a result, we have developed items like Funnel Cakes, Monsterella Stix, and $2 boxes of Chicken Bites, Shrimp Bites, and fries.”

Burgers, Menu Innovations, Web Exclusives, Checkers, Rally's